Tag Archives: Anxiety

Be Brave: Teaching Teenagers

I’m not sure when a room full of teenagers became as scary as giving birth. However, as I lay awake the other night, contemplating my decision to take a secondary sub job, childbirth somehow became my mantra.

You gave birth, you’ve got this.

Ironically, my fear didn’t just keep me awake, it also prevented me from powering up my cell phone to hit cancel on the automated sub page. I can’t stand the idea of letting my anxiety stop me from doing something I’ve always wondered about. In some alternate reality, I must be a high school teacher because I’m drawn like some poor insect to a flame.

The upside of fear-induced insomnia is it creates time for reflection. As I lay awake, I asked myself where all this anxiety was coming from– what is it about teenagers that is so darn scary? I find it necessary to interject that this particular population of teenagers is more on the side of something you’d see in a movie where the teacher is first reduced to tears and then toughens up, but the reality is that even private school teenagers have made me hesitate from pushing send on otherwise attractive job postings.

Which brings me back to my question. What’s the worst that could happen? Sure they might not listen to me, profess hatred, or pull some stupid prank, but even then, I’d only have to last through one period at a time for just one day. I’d weathered the same from 4th and 5th graders for entire years. Heck, I’d given birth, which used to be one of the scariest things on my list of probable life scenarios worth fearing.

Still, somehow, the older kids were much more intimidating. I’d seen them yell and scream profanities and not listen to their teachers on the same campus where I used to teach. I even shared a wall with a class that made me feel lucky to have students I didn’t have to climb onto the planters to talk over. And this was the very same school where I’d impulsively hit “accept” on the secondary sub posting…

So, when 5:50AM came around, I dragged myself out of bed and resisted the final opportunity to use my fussy, teething infant as my excuse for not showing up. As I put on my most drab teaching attire and pulled my hair into an austere bun, I practiced my game face. Despite my slight frame, I managed to look somewhat menacing if I scrunched my features just right. And, unlike prior days, where I’d filled my commute time with blue tooth banter, I quizzed myself on teaching techniques and played music that made me feel adequately tough.

Upon arrival, the Dean of Discipline armed me with positive incentives and detention slips. He also warned me they’d be challenging. Great. Maybe I already wasn’t exuding the toughness I’d hoped. As I set up shop in the front of the classroom, I let my eyes stop on the note from the previous day’s sub, cautious not to read so much as to psyche myself out. A quick glance revealed cursing, attitudes, help from admin.

What did I get myself into?

One day was regrettably not enough time to morph into Michelle Pfeiffer and build lasting relationships with these kids. Still, there was no getting off the ride now. First period, 11th grade. The oldest, and biggest of the kids for the day. Straight into the deep end.

I shook each of their hands as they entered the classroom and felt tiny looking up at 6-foot-tall man children. Still, most of them made eye contact and smiled. Maybe I could do this. As I started busting out my hard-won teaching strategies, I realized I didn’t need them. Sleepy eleventh graders came in and did their job with little prompting. I didn’t even have to finish a single countdown. What a relief. One period finished and nothing to report other than an hour of near-perfect silence.

Next up, three periods of 8th grade and at least thirty familiar faces from my year of resident teaching. Maybe that was part of the secret to my success. Many of the kids knew my name and some even remembered me fondly with warm hugs and excited faces. But that wasn’t entirely it. These were the kids the other sub had written such copious notes about.

Second period came into the room as a hot mess. Laughter, chairs squeaking to unassigned spots, backpacks flying across the counters. I doubted myself for a moment, although I’m certain they didn’t see it. A loud countdown did the trick and for the most part, the kids listened. Check marks and detention slips helped. A long period of silent work was achieved.

Third and fifth period repeated the same scene. The sixth graders at the end of the day were louder, but just as responsive to a strong voice and the promise of both negative and positive consequences. Sure some individual students required more interventions than others, but overall the classes were all right.

The worst that happened? Two boys handed me a hall pass dipped in toilet water, but I didn’t let them have the satisfaction of an emotional response. I calmly washed my hands in front of the class and asked them to go to the office. I’ve dealt with worse.

It turned out that teaching older kids wasn’t so different than teaching fourth and fifth graders. It wasn’t easy but I survived. I talked directly to teenagers and they (mostly) did what I asked. I used a strong voice and looked them in the eyes. I came home tired but triumphant. I’d let go of my fear.

Now I just have to work up the courage to try Kindergarten…

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The Infamous Question: Where do you see yourself in five years?

I know I recently wrote about myself at 66, but this week I have been thinking about myself at 34 (cough::: err, almost 35). It’s that time of year when you sit down with your boss and discuss your 2 to 5 year plan, or at least it is if you’re a teacher. Thinking about my answer, I could not help but trace back 5 years.

Five years ago today I was in Lake Tahoe with my boyfriend. It was Sunday, the day after our first set of friends got married. We had stayed at Harvey’s and ended up in an outdated two queen room so that I could see the lake instead of the parking lot in our first assignment. Looking out over the glory of Lake Tahoe, I wanted the future to be mine. I wanted Alex to propose.

In that odd state of wedding fever, we ended up with a dog. Maybe I thought a dog would make us feel more like a little family. We had visited the pet shop the day before and fallen in love with a toy poodle. He was boisterous and tiny, a baby. As soon as we left the pet shop, I was sick to my stomach. We sat in the parking lot beside the lake and I felt like I was going to throw up. I called the pet store and asked if we could return him. They told me no.

Achilles turned Preston represented a lot more than just a dog. He meant grown-up responsibility, the kind that lasts more than a decade.

Achilles turned Preston represented a lot more than just a dog. He meant grown-up responsibility, the kind I wanted but didn’t know how to handle.

It was my first recognizable panic attack. Before I did not realize my emotions sometimes made me sick. I did not know if I could manage the decade plus responsibility I had just signed up for. I feared our noisy inward-opening apartment on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley would kick us out. We weren’t allowed to have pets. I don’t know what I was thinking. Alex sat patiently as I lost my cool, my whole body trembling with anxiety.

We drove home slowly, the dog, then named Achilles, peed on me more than once. We stopped at my parents’ house and let him play in the backyard, my brother and sisters and best friend sitting in a circle in the grass as he ran between us, stopping at each person for kisses and playful bites. I simultaneously loved and feared him.

We made it back to Berkeley at nightfall and discovered sneaking him up and down the stairwell to be a daunting feat, neighbors passing, looking quizzically, the apartment manager potentially lurking around any corner. That night, neither the dog nor I slept. He bounced around the apartment and cried, helpless. I turned in fits of nausea constantly concerned he was pooping or peeing or alerting the neighbors with his yap.

The next day I went to work a mess and sat in my cube searching for an answer instead of performing my duties as an economic analyst. Animal rights activists pulled down my posts on Craig’s List and PetFinder instantaneously. The Bay Area is good for shaming people into keeping their ill-acquired pets. By some stroke of luck, one of my best friends and her mom had been looking for a toy poodle. That evening, Achilles became Preston as I passed him into my friend’s loving arms somewhere off the road between Sacramento and Berkeley, tears in my eyes, guilt in my irresponsibility.

Everything turned out okay. The shame disappeared, Preston became the prized dog of a family with an actual dog door and backyard. I came to grips with the fact that I had an anxiety problem. I read books and saw doctors. I refused medication, but tried countless natural remedies. It has been three years since my last anxiety attack, the day I quit my job with less than two days notice to begin my teacher residency program. Since then, I have been fine.

Five years changes a lot. I went from a cube to a classroom, dating to married, a tiny one-bedroom apartment in Berkeley to a house in Sacramento, anxious to often complimented for my calm. I don’t know what changed exactly. Maybe it was making the conscious decision to stop being scared and live more in line with who I was meant to be. Maybe it was the decision to take one day at a time, instead of freaking out over next week, next month, next year. Perhaps it was all the reading, or the change in diet, or the exercise, or the yoga. I really don’t know. It wasn’t an instant process and it’s still not complete.

So, when I am asked where I see myself in five years, I have no idea. Mother or childless, teacher or writer, or still both. Low-income school or private where I can be myself more often. Teaching yoga to high-risk youth, or part of some organization that fights the fight I want to champion. Living in Sacramento or on acreage in the foothills or on the other side of the world. I have no idea. All I know is that the last five years have taught me to follow my heart and keep working hard toward what matters. The results may not be perfect, but they will be better than I could ever imagine.

Which leaves me with my usual question, what about you?

My favorite picture from 2008, Carmel, beach, friends, Alex. Some things don't change so much.

My favorite picture from 2008, Carmel, beach, friends, Alex. Some things don’t change so much.

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Oh Public Speaking, I’ll Make You My Friend Yet.

Today was my big evaluation, the one worth all the jelly beans. Well 40% of the jelly beans, to be exact, but that’s beside the point. It felt big, it felt scary. My principal observed for nearly an hour and rated me on an intensive rubric, which will be used to help determine my merit as a teacher. All weekend I obsessed. I memorized my lesson, practiced by myself, practiced with my husband, practiced in front of the dog. You get the idea.

This morning as I drove to work I talked myself through my anxiety and realized I have some pretty good tricks for surviving public speaking (none of which involve imagining the audience unclothed):

1. Remind yourself that the audience is there because they support and care about you. When I remind myself of this, I am able to smile at observers who walk into my classroom. I used to avert my gaze and pretend these visitors weren’t there, but this only made it worse. A quick smile and eye contact do wonders. The best part is that usually a smile begets a smile, which reinforces the idea that your audience cares about you.

I use this same trick in dealing with parents. I tell myself that we’re there for the same reason– because we care about kids. Recognizing a common mission, even in challenging situations, helps a lot. And, if you have no evidence that your audience cares about you, telling yourself that you love and/or care for them, regardless, can ease tension exponentially. I use it on the kids (and their families) all the time.

2. Smile and breathe. It’s the moments leading up to public speaking that really get to me. If I can remind myself to stop, smile, and breathe shortly beforehand, I feel much more relaxed. I’ve heard this is because both actions send a message to the brain that there is nothing to worry about.

3. Time passes quickly. Public speaking is one of the few instances in life where I am happy this is true. Before you know it, the experience is over. And, best yet, it’s really only the beginning that feels uncomfortable, once you get going, it’s fine. Remembering this eases the torture.

4. Practice, practice, practice. That book I’m reading, Practice Perfect, provides great motivation for practicing whatever you can before the big performance. The section I just finished is all about how if you practice anything to the point of automaticity, you give your body an opportunity to take over for your brain. That was my goal in practicing my lesson repeatedly this weekend– auto-pilot for the brain does wonders when you’re nervous.

5. Ask someone to think good thoughts for you. This might seem silly, but I swear it helps. Knowing that loved ones are out there rooting for me around the time that I will be speaking is amazingly comforting.

So, there you have it. My favorite tricks for performance anxiety. Fortunately, I only feel nervous about speaking in front of people a few times a year, (next up, Saturday school where 60+ pairs of parent eyes will stare at me expectantly for an hour). Until then, I’m happy to have collected some secrets to ease the nerves.

As a teacher I spend a lot of time putting on a show, but sometimes the performances still make me nervous.

As somewhat of an introvert, I definitely picked an interesting career.

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Hot Yoga: A Lesson in Anxiety

Today I overcame my fear of suffocating heat.  I went to hot yoga.  It was 105 degrees and I had to be talked into it, by three people.  Before I left my house, I almost bailed.  I was having real anxiety about not being able to breathe in a hot, crowded room.

One of my first real anxiety attacks occurred in a small, hot space.  I was on a mini-bus in Madrid.  Poor planning left the interior of the bus heated to over 100 degrees when we boarded.  Silly girl that I was, I sat in the last row, where the air strained to reach me.  It was my first real taste of claustrophobia.  I thought I was going to pass out.  I almost asked the bus driver to pull over so that I could get off.  I survived by closing my eyes and breathing.

Anxiety is a funny thing.  I remember going to the doctor in my late teens and describing some of my phantom symptoms:  random dizziness, upset stomach, shortness of breath.  The doctor asked if I had anxiety.  I said no.  I really did not think that I did.  By the time I reached 25, I figured it out.  I had anxiety, he was right all along, I just could not believe that something in my head could have so much control over my body.  I refused to medicate.  I was determined to overcome it by myself.

Flash forward a few years and most of the time I do overcome it.  I read a lot of books and realized that I need to face my fears.  This may seem simple, but real anxiety can be debilitating.  There were days that it was easier to hide from everything, to avoid life.  I had a week-long anxiety attack when I quit my job and started my teaching program, but I just kept trucking.  If I ever get a tattoo, it will say “Be brave.”

So, yesterday, when I felt anxiety’s nasty little symptoms creeping in, I knew what I was dealing with.  That’s half the battle, knowing your enemy.  The other half is facing it.  No matter how much my stomach hurt or I could not sleep thinking about it, I had to go to hot yoga.  And, yes, there were moments when I felt like I was going to pass out, when I sat on the floor and closed my eyes and breathed while everyone else kept moving.  But, I also caught myself smiling as I fought through it.  Anxiety wins if it stops me from doing something new, I win when I do it anyway.  Today, I’m happy to report I kicked anxiety’s ass.

I survived hot yoga, drenched in sweat, but smiling.

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The Zen of Cleaning

“A perfectly kept house is the sign of a misspent life.”

Saw that recently on Tumblr and agreed only because of the word perfectly.  I’m getting better at not being OCD about cleaning.  My husband helps with this by not sharing my compulsion for tidiness.

However, there is something about cleaning that is meditative for me.  The first day of a break, I always clean my house.  I throw out or give away everything superfluous, I make my home a place that I want to spend time.  I recently read that people with neat bedrooms sleep better and that people with neat living spaces are calmer, (at least those prone to anxiety, like little old me).  Not sure if any of that is true, but anecdotally, I feel much less stressed in an ordered environment.

I wouldn’t say that I like the actual act of cleaning, but I do like the quiet time to think.  I find that I have to carry around a notebook from room to room because writing ideas come to me while I work.  And, when it’s all done, I feel very visually satisfied with my surroundings.  I even make my husband come look at my new organization systems, much to his chagrin.

So, there you have it.  Today I enjoyed the zen of cleaning.  It’s one of my little life rituals for inner peace.

What are your secrets to consciously cultivating happiness?


Here was one of the bonuses of my compulsion to clean– found this note I didn’t take the time to fully enjoy from a student yesterday.  She pretty much captured me in a nutshell:  I care for them, I’m always watching, and my dream is for them to at least have the option to go college. Doesn’t hurt that she likes my glasses and my outfit either… Made me smile.                                                           


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